Saturday, February 28, 2009

Another reason I don't run Windows.

I'd like to start off by saying that I don't hate Windows. I just don't think it is a very good operating system in comparison to Ubuntu or OSX. Overall it provides a reasonably stable and consistent platform for users to interact with their computer.
Outside of work I barely ever boot up in to Windows. I do have a Virtual Machine of XP, Vista, and Windows 7 for the occasional dabbling. Regardless of my opinion of Windows I do believe it is important for me to keep up with its goings on, since IT is my profession.
So the other day I had my XP Virtual Machine booted up and I had a few things open. I left my computer for a little while to do a few other things and when I come back I have a message telling me that Windows knew better than that I needed my machine and all of its applications up. Apparently what I really needed to do was restart. In fact, I needed to restart so incredibly much that it wouldn't have been prudent for Windows to ask me for my opinion on such matters. It didn't matter if I maybe had some unsaved work open, or maybe I just didn't really feel like having my computer rebooted, Windows knew that I must reboot.
Believing that the computer always knows better than the user is a design decision that permeates Microsoft's products. Office is legendary for its paperclip that is about as annoying is a little chihuahua that won't stop yapping, and its auto-formatting that makes getting the right formatting in to your document a task within itself.
This behaviour also effected a coworker, when he was trying to give a presentation. Updates had been installed on his laptop, and about every five minutes his presentation would be interrupted with a prompt to reboot. Of course he wasn't interested in rebooting in the middle of his presentation, but Windows wasn't going to have it. He was either going to reboot or be annoyed constantly, his choice.
Operating system should be out of the way, should talk to you only when absolutely necessary, and provide a good interface for letting you quickly and easily let it know what you want. The purpose of the operating system is to understand your needs and act accordingly, not to let you know its needs and force you to comply.
It is very much like how cars work. When there is a problem, low on gas, an open door, high engine temperature, etc. it notifies you with a simple gauge or indicator light that is easy to access, but does not interfere with your driving. Likewise, the operating system should give you easy to access cues about what is going on, but ultimately let you get back to the issue of using your computer.

Two excuses IT professionals use.

The following excuses are used frequently by IT professionals as a scape goat for not letting you do something they don't want you to do, or to lay blame on problems they don't know how to solve.
  1. Your problems are caused by these other applications that I don't support.
  2. I can't allow you to do that, or have that software because it is a security threat.
The first one is used to explain why you are having PC problems. This often comes in the form of some sort of "fanboy" bias. A Microsoft lover might say, "Your computer boots slowly because you have Firefox installed" or, "The Google toolbar is why IE is crashing so much." They will usually remove the offending program, but it won't actually fix the problem. They will then have to actually find the real solution, and then go back and say you still can't have whatever app they removed still claiming it was the problem. They will not let you have your old application back, even though it was never causing any problems.
The second excuse will be used to explain why they won't let you have the program even before you've installed it. They will insist that every program you want is a security risk.
This is not to say that there are not legitimate reasons for the IT staff at your work to deny you from having no other programs installed except the ones they provide. A good security policy, in my opinion, is to set up an employees computer in a manner that is consistant with their work duties, and then lock it down very tight so the user does not have access to add or remove software, or make any system changes. However, these reasons should be properly articulated using facts and valid arguments, not scape-goats and non-truths.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

College isn't useful without context.

While studying for an exam I came across this question:

When several different vendors and/or products are candidates and you want to solicit competitive
proposals and quotes, what would you use?
The answer is a request for proposal. In my different jobs I've come across this term a few times, and when I saw my available options I knew this was the answer. Now if someone had asked me what a request for proposal was before I read that I wouldn't have been able to answer the question. When I saw this definition with a list of possibilities, I remembered that the definition seemed to fit the scenarios I've encountered this word in, so I guessed it right. The next time I hear someone talk about an RFP, I'll probably know better what they mean.

This class is part of my IT major and is designed to teach students about the business side of information technology. It deals with the different processes one can expect to encounter while working in an office handing information technology issues.

To someone like me who already has a few years of experience, these terms and processes have practical application to my world. To someone who has no experience, who this class is ultimately designed for, these are just a bunch of words with a bunch of definitions that don't mean anything. The very definitions themselves hold no meaning, so applying them to a word doesn't help.It is like telling a person that has been blind for their entire life that white is the result of mixing red, blue and green light together in equal proportions. You could test a blind person on this, but without sight, it does the blind person no good. You'd might as well tell students to remember to put P next to the number 113 on the test, because that is all the college student is thinking while studying for a test.

We need to encourage our college children to get a job, or at least intern, in their career of choice. Once able to take these seemingly vague idea, processes and definition and give them real world application, students will be able to pull meaning out of the effort they are putting into their classes.

I work and have worked with a lot of people who I know had to have taken these same courses when they where in college, but do not apply many of the most important business tactics. It is probable that the reason that this is the case so frequently is that when they took these courses these ideas had no applicable meaning to them beyond getting a good grade in the class. Once the answer was jotted down on that test paper its usefulness was put to full use and discarded.

College should not be building new theories as a base for knowledge in a subject to be built up in afterward once employed. Students should come in to college with a good base, and they should then have that solid base built up in class.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The bailout is Obama's Iraq

When Bush began his push for war in Iraq it was obvious that this big. If things didn't work out quite right, if Bush was wrong about everything, it would surely be the end of Bush. You don't just start a war. You don't just invade another country. The country was reeling from a terrorist attack and this seemingly uninvolved country was Bush's answer. If he was wrong how could anyone forgive his mistake? It took a while but Iraq turned out to be a huge mistake. I wasn't around during the Vietnam era, but it is probably on that scale. Bush left office with a big middle-finger from the USA by electing a president who campaigned on the idea that he would rule exactly the opposite of Bush and won handily. Iraq was Bush's gamble. The size of it mean that it would make or break his legacy. He would go out a hero or an ass-hat.
Today our country is struggling in the midst of an equal crisis. Our whole financial system is threatening to collapse leaving us vulnerable for China or Russia to take over as the world super power. Talk of another great depression seems plausible. Obama's answer to this crisis is a nearly $800 billion bailout. That number is insane. Super insane. Attacking a non-threatening sovereign nation insane. If this bailout does not work then Obama will also leave the White House with his tail between his legs. He will probably defend it to the end of time not matter how asinine that assertion may seem in retrospect. Progressive and liberal thought will seem passé.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Ultra-light backpacking

For the longest time I have been wanting to do a backpacking trip. I have been a fan of camping all of my life, but I have never hiked a trail for days on end. Throughout 2008 Andrew and I have hiked around the trails in the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge. We had thrown around the idea of an extended hiking trip for some time.

After watching The Into the Wild on Sunday night with Kim, I decided I had to finally do it. I talked to Andrew and we have decided to take a week off and hike a section of the Florida Trail. We are going to do this with a technique known as Ultra-Light Backpacking, which is exactly as it sounds. We will carry only the bare minimum supplies. Most ULBs I've read about try to keep their luggage at below ten pounds.

I've been preparing for my trip by spending my lunch break walking. I'm getting about two miles in each day, which is good because backpackers usually travel around two miles per hour. Walking also makes me feel pretty good about life in general. Southwood has a very nice nature walk. To build the neighborhood they practically leveled the whole plantation, but left a mile long stretch in tacts for a paved trail. You can view a rough outline of what my walk looks like on Google Maps.

We don't have a week set in stone. We are shooting for April, but that's not very convenient for Kim. She says Spring Break or after school is out is best for her, but Spring Break is too soon and I am concerned it may be much warmer by the time school ends. We'll have to see.

I will be looking for tips on what to bring on the trip. I've already got a very light sleeping bag. We will carry lots of grit and oatmeal packets and cereal bars. I have a feeling that all that walking will make me quite hungry, and that may be the real problem when it comes to keeping things light.

I'll post back when more has been sorted out.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Disenfranchised with College

As I continue on in my quest for a four-year college degree I grow and more and more sarcastic about the quality of knowledge transmitted in this quest. Most of the work I do for my classes is busy work, and I feel that at the end of each semester the only thing that grades next to the course numbers on my transcript prove is that I can sit down and do a tons of pointless busy work for a sustained amount of time.

It seems hard to imagine that a rational person would be able to effectively argue the value of the information I am being made to learn to earn my degree. It really isn't even so much the facts in the knowledge that the class is suppose to teach, but the value of how that knowledge is taught. Most classes work like this. Here's some busy work. Thumb through the text book to find the line that has the answer for each question. Turn it in. Here's what will be on the test. Put your short-term memory to the test and then take an exam. Rinse and repeat the formula a few times each semester and you have what passes for a college class.

Let's compare this to what I do in my spare time. Once I was interested in tying some web pages on my website into a MySQL database. I asked someone who knew some PHP and he showed me a piece of paper with some examples. I used that to start and then used the help on and after a few hours of fooling around I had it all working. This is real-world learning that has a practical application to my professional career. MySQL + PHP is not used in my job, but the ability to take a problem and solve it in a few hours is very relevant to my job, and probably to most any professional career. These kind of real-world skills seem to be the antithesis of the college experience as far as I have seen.

When I sit down to do my homework I really feel like I am just wasting my time. The only thing that really keeps me going is the ever nearing ability to put on my resume that I have a four-year degree in Information Technology.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Why the cause of global warming doesn't matter

A lot of debate has come from the debate about the source of global warming. It primarily boils down to every scientist that reviews the evidence comes to the conclusion that global warming is a man made phenomenon. The main exceptions are those scientists on the payroll of businesses with an interest in the public believing otherwise. This is not universally true, as a number of scientists not connected with oil companies have come forward and voiced their skepticism. However, I posit that when it comes to planning our future, the cause of global warming is immeterial.
To begin, let's posit that global warming is caused by human activity, namely the release of the so called greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The corrective action to this would be to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that we emit. Indeed, we should go further and try to reverse the damage already caused by to repopulate the plant and tree population on our planet.
So let's posit that global warming is part of the natural trends of heating up and cooling down. Would that mean we no longer have to worry about the pollution we are producing? Absolutely not! Our current life style still needs to be changed for other reasons. There is no debate surrounding whether or not we are the cause of mass extinction, the pollutions of our waterways and ocean in ways that threatens our food and water supply, without which we cannot survive as a species. It is also a fact that the availability of oil is limited. Sooner or later we must find an alternative energy source.
The green movement does not need a belief in man made global warming to have legitimacy. Man made global warming is only one part of the green argument, a part that can be easily removed without compromising its legitimacy.

Why drilling is not the right action.

Imagine you owe a member of the mafia $1 million. After holding this debt long enough they have warned you your life may soon be in imminent danger. You appeal to two of your friends for assistance.
The first friend is something of a slime ball and offers you this help. "I'll rape your mother and record it and my brother will pay you for the services." You ask how much he will pay and your friend tells you, "I don't know, probably $100."
Your next friend is a financial manager. He assures you that if you make some tough choices now, and work hard enough at it, he believes he can help you earn and save enough money to keep the mob off of your back so you can slowly earn enough money to pay them back.
Whose advice would you take? Why irreparably destroy our priceless habitat in exchange for such a small return when we can responsibly solve our problems? Why is there even a debate about this? I don't see what this has to do with conservative versus liberal. It's about pragmatism versus greed for a few.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Blog reading

I am subscribed to a whole bunch of feeds. Most of them are very low traffic. A few have a medium amount of traffic, generating no more than seven or eight entries a day that can easily be read in about five minutes. Three of the feeds I am subscribed to is an aggregation of blogs from bloggers relevant to the topic. For example, Planet Ubuntu is an aggregation of Ubuntu developer blogs.
At my last job which was about 75% down time, I had no problem reading all the blogs that came through. When I started my new job I unsubscribed from a lot of blogs, especially some of the aggregates.
To the left is how my current unread count looks. This is significantly down from what it used to be a few weeks ago. To the right is a list of all the feeds I am subscribed to. I am contemplating dropping the Planet Mozilla feed. I consider reading many of these blogs to be an important part of my professional development. Getting the insights and news about current technology trends from people across the globe has been incredibly helpful in my career.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Shaky cam and frequent cuts

I was watching the DVD that came with the first studio album by Rodrigo y Gabriela. It had a few live performances on it, and I was interested in watching how they make the magic happen. Instead I got a performance of two musicians that jumped from left to right, and up and down on my camera. The actual musicians where just sitting there, but the cameramen thought it necessary to make the camera look like they where trying to film while driving down a bumpy road. The editors decided that the shake wasn't enough. It was also necessary to not allow one camera to have more than one second of screen time. This may be ideal if you find epileptic seizures to be hip, or you just didn't actually want to watch them play live, but for anyone who actually cared to see an amazing performance caught on video, it really destroys everything.
It seems that cutting and shaking all the time is the big rage. I ran across this problem while watching the Transformers movie. A fight between two giant robots in a large city seems like something that would be hard to mess up. You really couldn't watch them fight though. It was just a bunch of shaky footage. You couldn't really tell what was going on. There was no action. It looked more like an excuse to not hire a real fight choreographer, than a means to produce a bad-ass movie.
For true genius one should defer to the fight between King Kong and the T-Rex. The two monsters take at each other with the skill of two contestants in an ultimate fighting match. The camera moves only when necessary to give the viewer a close up on the action, not as an excuse to hide the fact that there is no real action going on. Everything about this epic battle stands as a model for all moves that includes a fight against two fictional giants.
As a consumer of art and media I appreciate when my intellect to be respected. If I wanted shaky cams where it was impossible tell what was happening I'd watch the worst rated videos on youtube.

Friday, February 6, 2009

A Kim-less Weekend

This weekend Kim is going to Miami for a cousin's wedding. I will be taking the three girls to Pensacola to meet up with Zeke and Vicki before they head to Las Vegas to take up residence.
I don't mind having the girls by myself for a few days, but I really don't like being without Kim's company for a weekend. I think it is good that we are going out of town because when I leave town I expect everything to be different. When I am home and Kim is not there it shows up everywhere. It constantly feels like something isn't right.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The state of the civil rights movement

I just listened to this episode of Fresh Air. This really moved me. Congressman John Lewis discusses his involvement in the civil rights movement. It is followed by the son of a black panther member. Both of these are very honest and provide great context for the world we live in, especially for people like me who grew up post 70s.

A common misconception about plugins.

I follow the White House's blog, and came across this today.

I found the Volt to be very comfortable -- and surprisingly simple. You plug it in and you can get 40 miles on a single charge! Because nearly 80% of Americans commute 40 miles or less a day, this car could potentially provide 80% of Americans with a zero-emissions option for their commute.

The reality is that plug-ins are as zero-emission as any other device in your house. Plug-ins do not have some magical source of energy that they charge off of that is zero-emissions. Plug-ins get their power from the same source as the outlet it plugs into. If you plug your car into an outlet at your house then your car will be running off of the source of power that your local electric company provides. This is not zero-emissions and the media should not be trying to sell that sort of misinformation. The White House shouldn't either.
What I would like to see is solar panels on the top of cars charging up the batteries. Solar panels are probably too expensive and produce too little energy to make much of an impact on your car (though I don't know that) it would be nice for your car to just sit in the driveway and charging up from a real zero-emissions source. I have heard that a new generation of solar cells are suppose to be coming out soon that are much more efficient. Perhaps these can provide a relevant amount of energy to our cars of the future.

I don't understand Microsoft's direction.

News hit yesterday of the different versions of Windows 7. Like Vista, Microsoft is going to ship several different versions that range from a crippled version up to a the beefy version that costs a whole lot of money. The idea is sound. Microsoft has to pay developer to develop and maintain features, some of which are only used by advanced users or by businesses. By offering a cheaper version of Windows that does not include these features, they are shifting the financial burden to the users with more needs than the average person. Why should the average consumer pay for features they will never need or know exists?

I think Microsoft did a good job of making this divide in XP. If you didn't know the difference bettwen XP Home and XP Pro, chances where you had no need for XP Pro. If you did know the difference, chances are it isn't that difficult for you to decide which one you need.

With Vista there are six different version planned for launch, Starter, Home Basic, Home Premium, Professional, Enterprise, and Ultimate. This isn't just confusing for the average consumer, this becomes confusing even for technophiles. Microsoft has not yet released pricing.

Reportedly, Starter is for low end machines and protable devices. The report so far makes Start sound like a complete piece of crap. According to The Inquirer, it will only allow the user to run three programs at once. This artificial limitations is absolutely stupid. My XO, which is running much lower specs than the average netbook without much of a problem. It is also highly presumptuous of Microsoft to say "three programs" without any regard to the hardware specifications or the amount of resources the application uses. This means you could run three programs that use a lot of resources, but not four programs that have a smaller footprint. It is believe other functionality will be reduced, but neither the netbook nor low-end computer manufacturer get to have a say which features should be reduced or kept. It is simply a one size fits all job. Since many netbook manufacturers have been putting Linux on these devices because Vista is simply to bloated to offer a good user experience, I don't see what this does to enhance Microsoft's position.

Without dissecting the specifics of the other versions, it is suffice to say that it is just a list of versions that have features added or removed, depending on the target market. In light of Microsofts competition, which has made some small but significant strides in erroding market share in a post-Vista world, this really doesn't make Microsoft look good.

Apple sells their OSX with the current version being Leopard. The only other OS product they are currently selling is OSX server. The decision is clear, everyone buys Leopard unless they want a server. For $129 you get the full OS with all of the features and the improved security and stability offered over the Windows products.

With Linux the situation is not so clear because there are hundreds and hundreds of versions available, but the overwhelming consensus is that everyone should use Ubuntu unles they know enough about Linux to know why they would have a need or desire for any other version. Okay, it still isn't that easy because their is Ubuntu, Kubuntu, and Xubuntu each offering a different interface, but most people should probably just use Ubuntu unless they are technical enough to know why they would use something else. So while Linux doesn't exactly win in this category, it still beats the versioning of Windows.

The stock install of Ubuntu will run just fine on the lowest-end machines that are being sold today including the netbooks. It also scales up just fine to take advantage of a top of the line PC. It does this at install time by looking at your hardware specs and adjusting itself accordingly. It doesn't artificially lock you out of how many programs you can have open, or deny you access to features because you didn't spend more money.

Ubuntu also releases on a predictable schedule of every six months, and gives you a predictable life time of three years of support, while every so often releasing a version supported for five years. If a consumer decides to choose Linux it is very easy. You get the latest version of Ubuntu, no matter how low end or high end the machine you are purchasing, and don't worry about new versions for three years.

This is by no means a Windows bash. There are a lot of great improvements in Windows 7, especially with Internet Explorer 8. I just see their model of havng six different versions that go from needlessly crippled to needlessly expensive, when their competitors handle this in a much more consumer friendly fashion.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Meaningless Corporate Leadership

As a student majoring in Information Technology I have been made to take various business and management courses. I often wonder if those who I work with that are managers or in executive positions ever took any of these courses, because they seem to make a show out of breaking every good practice that is taught.

One important part of management is effective goal administration. There are some fairly standard rules to effective goal setting.
  • Specific – Your goals need to be well-defined. Try and be as precise as possible

  • Measurable – You need to know when you have achieved your goal

  • Attainable – Make sure your goals are realistic

  • Relevant – Consider how relevant your goal is within your overall plan

  • Time-Specific – Try and keep a timescale

In this light, here are the posted goals that have been posted around my work.
  • Increase Customer Satisfaction

  • Engage Employees

  • Demonstrate Customer Value

These goals fail being measurable, and so it follows they are not attainable. The verbiage is such that they are too vague to have any useful meaning. Maybe somewhere these goals are broken down into a more specific vision for management to review. This is doubtful, or if true, still unhelpful because the first and third goals are goals that transcend management and sit largely in the lap of all employees at all levels.

The goal to "engage employees" is the worst because it doesn't even have any meaning. If it really is a goal it implies that our organization was previously not engaging employees. This goal has about as much value of a goal that says, "Talk." All you have to do is say a word and you are done. Without any verbiage that implies improvement, it really isn't much of a goal.

It really bothers me that presumably well paid professionals put this kind of stuff out on a regular basis when they should know better. If the end goal that they where hired on for was to create goals then they have succeeded. If, however, they where hired on to help our organization grow, and they are trying to use goal setting as a tool to accomplish those ends, then they have failed miserably, and have publicly posted their uselessness for the whole organization to see.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Athena's Birthday

On Saturday Athena turned five years old. On her request we had her party at Chuck 'E' Cheese. We reserved out party for 10 AM. Chuck E's gives you lots of benefits for registering so early, and it also worked in our favor because at that time we practically had the place to ourselves. We also got double tokens.

Athena spent the day dressed in her princess dress. She spent most of the time at Chuck-Es oblivious to her surrounding, just eating up the situation. I followed her around holding her quarter and playing different games with her. She is still not old enough to play most of the games, but she still fumbled through them and had a great time.

Bo and Erica played with Aurora the whole time and they really enjoyed her. She went crazy on all of the games and the three of them where having a lot of fun.

Athena had various friends there too, but she really spent most of her time with just an adult watching her. Towards the ends, around twelve o'clock, we where getting ready to leave but we still had a lot of coins. We started playing the games where you just insert a coin and either win tickets or not. I thought with all of the token, and winning over two-hundred tickets we would be able to get some cool toy, but I think we just got some cotton candy and two small plastic toys. It didn't really matter either way as the games where more fun than the stuff we got with the tickets.

When we showed up we thought Arianna would be scared of the animatronics, but she was pretty curious about them and got really close. When Chuck-E came out to do the birthday thing, she was pretty scared. I held her off to a distance and she just stared in deep interest. At that age children are unable to distinguish the difference between fantasy and reality, so I can only imagine that such a sight is quite weird.

She spent a lot of time with Judith playing with the different games. This worked out very well because usually Arianna, in a large crowd, will cling pretty hard to either Kim or myself. Judith was eating up Arianna's attention and would just endlessly let her to repetitive tasks that bore most people pretty quickly.

We had been to a few parties before where the presents weren't opened at the actual party, but privately afterwords. Kim wanted to do this and so we did. At home we opened the different presents and the kids began playing with them.

The day was a great success and Athena is as proud as any kid to turn five.

I will have pictures on this blog soon and on my picasaweb site, so check back probably tomorrow.

Why Linux programs should be multiplatform

Often in the Linux community there is an outrage when another awesome Linux application gets ported to Windows. The general argument is that the program should not step as low as to support such a crappy OS. It is also frequently argued that by offering the application on the Windows platform it gives users one less reason to switch to Linux and hurts the open source movement. I have always been uncomfortable with such arguments, but have never really knew why I disliked that argument beyond the fact it screams of blind fan-boyism. Yesterday when discussing open source with a non technology person it came to me. The answer is so obvious I'm surprised it wasn't obvious to me the first time I heard that argument.

The glaring problem is in the very nature of the purpose of open source and open standards. The ethos of openness is interoperability. The fight against lock-in such as IBM had in the 80s before open networking standards where developed and deployed.

In the 80s almost all corporate networks where setup with IBM mainframes and terminals. IBM hardware only spoke to other IBM hardware. Because IBM dominated the market, if you wanted your hardware to be able to communicate with anything else it had to be IBM. Competition was essentially shut out and the price of networking was through the roof.

When open networking standards where developed and deployed competition flourished and both the price and quality of networking bent to the consumers favor, but not IBMs. This is precisely what open standards are about. Any company can build hardware and software than can interact with everything else out there and competition and customer demand bring about a healthy market.

So back to Linux. Linux desktops exists for the soul purpose of interoperability. Everything about the software stack, from the underlying kernel, to the programs the user interacts with is built to prevent lock in. A user, or a manufacturer, has the full ability to remove, replace or modify the whole entire software stack. Linux is also written to support as much hardware as possible including x86, PPC, and ARM platforms, meaning you can run it almost anywhere. So the idea that we would want to hold the great open source products in Linux as a Linux-only option stands in direct violation of the whole purpose of open source. This is no different than when William Worthy visited Cuba and had a great deal of trouble returning back to his homeland. The idea was that the USA was so free you weren't allowed to visit non-free countries. By definition it flies in the face of freedom.